Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2024

The Marilyn Conspiracy

Guy Masterson and Vicki McKellar

Genre: Drama, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Park Theatre


Low Down

An Edinburgh and London hit from 2018, The  Marilyn Conspiracy co-written by Vicki McKellar and Guy Masterson who also directs, is revived at Park Theatre till July 27th.

A first-rate revival of a first-rate conundrum.


Co-written by Vicki McKellar (originator) and Guy Masterson who also Directs,  Set & Costume Designer Sarah June Mills, Lighting Designer Tom Turner, Sound Designer & Composer Jack Arnold, Set & Costume Designer & Costume  Supervisor Mike Lees, Wigs Darren ware, The Wig Room

Production Manager Ian Taylor for e-Stage, Assistant Production Manager Lewis Champney for e-Stage, CSM Reuben Bojang, ASM Elsie O’Rourke, PR Mobius Industries,

Rehearsal & Production Photography NUX Photography by Brigitta Scholz Mastroianni, Artwork Photography Richard Lakos, Artwork Design Rebecca Pitt, Videography Piers Foley Photography, Graphic Design The Graphic Design House

Special thanks to What Katy Did and Vivien of Holloway

Till July 27th


“You… men have been calling all the shots and, what? We simply gawp and take what you say as gospel? “ A movie star lies dead and seven friends in the next room take five hours to phone the police. Nothing to see here. An Edinburgh and London hit from 2018, The  Marilyn Conspiracy co-written by Vicki McKellar and Guy Masterson who also directs, is revived at Park Theatre till July 27th.

August 4th 1962, the last day of Marilyn Monroe, also coincides with rising international tensions around Berlin, Vietnam and not least Cuba. How could an incipient missile-crisis months away, have anything to do with the world’s most famous movie star? Sleeping with a brace of Kennedys – Jack and Bobby – suggests proximity. Monroe’s involved. But how is she committed?

Enter a shrink telling Monroe to keep a diary to write out her emotions traumas, confusions, so she doesn’t forget. Add a break-up with Attorney-General Bobby, his brother the President’s left-hand-man. And Monroe says she’s about to call a press conference. And you have, well the conspiracy.

McKellar was gripped by Donald H Wolfe’s 1999 The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe. As presented, the evidence is compelling. Times of discovery, why Monroe was cleaned up and what was; how she couldn’t have ingested any tablets and even if she had, the preternaturally rapid effect. And who was there when others were told to go away? There’s been widespread belief of foul play, so no spoilers there. But the details, and what happened next are speculative and need to be seen.

Marilyn Monroe (Genevieve Gaunt) holds a phone. Moments later the other seven discuss her death. It’s an ongoing dramatic pattern throughout, as the two timescales both move forward, and Monroe interacts with friends and frenemies in various combos or strained or exuberant duets. Only with Newcomb it seems, can Monroe let her wig down and flirt, talk filthy and talk of Bobby or indeed Lawford or troubling movie boss Zanuck. “the best thing about fame is I don’t have to suck another cock… Alas poor Zanuck, I knew him, Fellatio.”

Gaunt moves from sallies of wit to moments of fragile withdrawal, to explosive outbursts that almost justify Lawford’s continual accusations of Monroe being “crazy” which Lawford levels at anyone else in his way too.

Maybe Monroe isn’t crazy, but abandoned and frightened. When Lawford uses unveiled threats it’s enough to draw out Monroe’s own. But destruction, unlike missile crises, isn’t necessarily mutually assured.

Monroe’s agent Pat Newcomb (Susie Amy) is her greatest friend and after her death, champion. Monroe needs one. British Hollywood actor Peter Lawford (a suave and snaky Declan Bennett) married to the Kennedy’s sister Patricia Kennedy-Lawford (upright Natasha Colenso), was once intimate but now on a mission to retrieve that diary.

Bobby wants a look. And Bobby, though offstage is omnipresent, as indeed he visits twice. We don’t see him. He’s the Kennedy in the room.

From the start Lawford proclaims “suicide” then works the room to get that verdict, despite evidence to the contrary. Masterson has directed Twelve Angry Men the 1955 classic about how an open-and-shut case of a young man shooting his father is turned round by one doubter to a verdict of not guilty.

The Marilyn Conspiracy, written by McKellar and developed with Masterson and each of the casts, pays some homage to that format. Seven angry or angsty people, one great-looking corpse after Lawford’s suspiciously cleaned up Monroe before she dies. And for a reason.

Bennet is quite superb: airy, deadly, full of sophistry and B-list Hollywood charm, proving Lawford worthy of the Rat-Pack: which means astute, a Kennedy PR machine in overdrive.

No wonder Lawford’s poor wife Patricia in Colenso’s hands has to take it: fiercely loyal to family beneath a veneer of warmth, she paradoxically begins to see cracks in Lawford’s very faithfulness to them. Not her.

Monroe’s entourage includes loyal fussy “dragon” housekeeper Mrs Eunice Murray (a conflicted uptight portrayal by Sally Mortemore),

and two doctors: Dr Hyman Engelberg (dignified, doubting Maurey Richards) is Monroe’s GP, and provides a bass-note of questions.

His only ally is highly-nuanced, probing psychiatrist Dr Ralph Greenson (David Calvitto), given moral support by his wife Mrs Hildi Greenson (Angela Bull). Bull’s most telling scenes come when she touches then holds hands with her husband as he deliberates out of step with Lawford.

Calvitto’s role is fascinating. The most trenchant sceptic, he has seemingly no price, and Calvitto has to work with a man conflicted by larger concerns, as the most intellectually politic but also morally driven character. Calvitto inflects Greenson’s every thought and winding as he balances what he believes with what must seem. Is it self-gaslighting that provokes one thought? “Like it or not, these men are our leaders. How could Kennedy stand up to Kruschev – in Berlin or Cuba or wherever – with something like this around his neck?”

Nor has Amy’s Newcomb, most trenchant of all, any price. And she has a startling revelation too for the Catholic Kennedys. Amy turns on Bennett like a pinpoint acetylene that can’t turn itself off. Persistently hostile, can frighteners do any damage? Amy’s Newcomb is an implacable sceptic no longer veiling hatred of a man she once more than liked.

And Richards’ Engelberg, doughty with medical principle and often mute, emerges with ticking evidence. He summarises everything as crisply as a prescription note: “Nothing points to suicide, and it certainly looks as though they came here with intent.” Such understatement launches the final third of the play. Motive, revelation, resolution.

Sarah Janes Mills has continued the tradition of a set in-the-round allowing audience members to enjoy the intimacy of people arguing. Cleverly using a revolve, the domestic interior incrementally turns: sofas, table, magazine, something hidden under cushions and soft furnishings: a cuddly toy tiger from Bobby – mute witness to assumptions.

Tom Turner’s lighting flicks between that bleary early morning lights-on moment, or near-darkness in between. Jack Arnold’s sound and composition evokes Fifties big-band moments, but a cool dawn soundscape too.

Acting, directing, script are clearly consummate. A first-rate revival of a first-rate conundrum. And McKellar and Masterson ask, literally, what would you do? There’s huge stakes beyond even presidents here, we’re told. Would the truth set us free at such moments, or land us in chains or obliteration?

From a 21st century perspective, we mightn’t think the dilemma, or trilemma, is so clear-cut. That the greater good might not dazzle us as Monroe once dazzled its chief protagonists.

Less than 16 months later, Jack Kennedy was dead, bringing even huger conspiracy narratives. And four-and-a-half years on Bobby, too. The whirligig of time brings in its cast-lists.